Ed’s great grandfather was John Hunt Harper, brother of my great grandfather Robert Frank Harper. Those men were two of the eleven children of Benjamin Franklin Harper. Robert Frank Harper had 21 children, the last of whom was my Granddaddy Charlie. John Hunt was the father of John Wesley Harper, who had a daughter, Grace. And Grace was Ed’s mother.
That’s a lot of names, but just a few members of the Benjamin Harper family. We still have our annual reunions at the Bethany United Methodist church in the Fife community of northern Fayette County. We’ll be having our 69th annual meeting this Spring.
It was at one of these reunions that I first remember meeting Grace and Ed. I remember Grace because she was quite memorable. She was a free spirit at a time and in places where they were few and far between. She’s the first lady I can recall ever hearing curse in church. On purpose.
It wasn’t profane, (I did say “lady” – and she was), but instead just honest and funny. And it wasn’t during a service. It was during the business meeting of the reunion.
Back then those that came to the reunion returned to the church sanctuary after lunch in the fellowship hall to elect officers of the reunion, receive reports on weddings, births, deaths. Awards were given for the youngest, oldest, and those that had traveled the farthest to attend. We would recognize the descendants of the 11 children of Benjamin Franklin Harper. And then we would have a “program”, which all too often would be a retired minister living near the community that would give us an entire second sermon.
The bonus sermon (often from a Baptist minister that made sure he took his time to tell us Methodists what we were obviously missing during our sprinkled lives) was the price to be paid for a covered dish dinner of Harper family cooking. Staples included about two dozen kinds of fried chicken, my mom’s oyster pie, grandma’s pecan tassies, and country ham and biscuits brought by Grace.
The election of officers was always one of the more interesting parts of the reunion. We had a President, Vice President, Secretary, and various committees to essentially ensure that the same folks would show up on the first Sunday in May at the same place and bring some food. The hard part of Secretary has been taken care of by cousin Brenda Torbush for as long as I can remember.
One year Ed and I got elected to President and Vice President and we killed the second sermon as a program. The 11am Methodist version was permanently ruled “good enough”. We somehow got reelected again, and along the way realized that the entire event might have been a bit over-regulated. About 20 years ago the coup became permanent when the election of officers was replaced by the question “Does anyone else want to do this job?” No one yet has spoken up, so we’ll say that the reunion has settled into a routine.
The duties were divided up as follows: Ed would either say the blessing or get someone (Bethany’s minister if attending) to say it. I would do most of the talking as we ticked through the order of business and recognized who there was descended from which branch of the family. And Ed would lead the singing of our closing hymn, which would either be Blest Be The Tie That Binds or God Be With You Till We Meet Again. Over the last few years it seems that God Be With You became the favorite.
One of the first years I was officiating over the reunion I asked for the descendants of Sarah Elizabeth Tallulah Harper Guthrie to stand and be recognized. Perhaps being a bit too irreverent for the occasion but knowing that there were no living family members from her branch, I mumbled something to the effect of “I think this is the line we’re always expecting a surprise member to show up from that we don’t know about.”
Apparently I didn’t say it that quietly, because from the back of the room I heard Grace’s unmistakable voice exclaim “You mean Aunt Liza?”
I was quite concerned that not only had I crossed a line, but that I had exceeded even the tolerance and humor of Grace. The momentary silence seemed like forever as I tried to regroup. The 11 descendants of my great great grandfather had always been just names to me. I forgot the entire reason for this reunion began as a way for their children and grandchildren to remember and honor them. And many of them were still alive and in that room.
Grace not only had humor, but she had timing. She waited just long enough, then said “Well…..I guess that would explain all those long and inexplicable trips she was always taking for months at a time to Alabama…”. That got a good laugh. And I learned a bit about a long gone family member at the same time. And that I had family members sitting right in front of me that, while from a different generation, I needed to know more about.
One year on a whim I decided to create a new award to go along with “youngest Harper” and “traveled the fartherest”. The Grace Alvarez Award is given “for no apparent reason and with no specific qualification” to an attendee chosen almost totally at random. It usually confuses the recipient and has most guessing as to what just happened. And those that are following along get a decent chuckle. As Grace would have had it.
Grace married Emil Alvarez and together they had Ed in 1941. Grace was widowed a few years later and raised Ed as a single mom in the forties and fifties. I don’t know a lot about her life in those years, and I’m sure there were many days that were not easy. By the time I had memories of her in the seventies she was delightful and happy, with a wicked wit and sense of humor. She was also quite generous.
Our church was a nice looking brick building but lacked a steeple throughout my childhood (and the roughly 100 years that preceded it). Some thought that the made the building incomplete – including Grace. One year at the reunion she announced that she and Ed would be donating a steeple and having it installed. And they did.
The steeple was installed and the church now looks complete. So much so that a movie scout saw the church driving by one day and cast it as the set in a movie starring Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah. If you want to see the inside of the church you can either show up on Sundays about 11am or you can watch The Joyful Noise.
This gift was only somewhat unusual in that Bethany wasn’t their home church. Grace had lived in town most of her life, and was a member of the Steward Avenue United Methodist Church until she died. Ed raised his family in Gwinnett County and was an active member and champion usher at Mountain Park UMC. There are Methodist ministers who have spent their entire careers moving between churches that don’t keep up active interest/relationships with three churches, but Ed was keenly interested in all three until he died.
But before Ed died, he did remember to live. He like all of the Harper family loved food. He could appreciate fancy dining but was more at home at Waffle House. It’s fitting that his gravesite is across the street from one of his favorites (and location for more than a couple of our meetings), College Park’s Barbecue Kitchen.
While I got to know Ed better when we became permanent officers of the reunion, we also became friends outside of the annual gathering. I became a banker after college and Ed and his mother’s accounts were mostly at my bank. He would come and see me regularly for business, but we almost always scheduled it around a meal. That way we could catch up, swap stories, enjoy each other’s company, and occasionally do a bit of work if necessary.
We talked about most of life’s important things. Food and family mostly. We didn’t talk much about football as Ed had attended Georgia Tech before enlisting in the Air Force. No reason to bring up obvious disagreements, because he loved his Yellow Jackets. Me? Not so much.
Ed was a proud veteran and loved his country. He liked to talk politics, and wanted more than a surface level understanding of most issues. Until his most recent illness it was not unusual for me to get frequent emails asking to verify things he had received via email – with a “second request” follow up if the response was not timely enough. He wanted to know the country he pledged to defend was going to be left in good hands.
He was proud of each of his children. Jeff, the oldest, runs a concrete business and is the father of Jeffrey Jr – Ed’s “pride and joy”. Alicia took care of her dad for much of the last two decades as his primary care giver. And Michael was in charge of recreational activities and hosted the last visit I had with Ed that didn’t involve a medical facility on his houseboat.
That was a great day over the July 4th weekend a couple of years ago. Good weather, good food, and family. All celebrating country.
Ed didn’t make the reunion this past year, but called to check on us to make sure the show was going to go on. I let him know that Gail Mosby was the recipient of the Grace Alvarez award. She was appropriately confused of her honor.
This year Ed will be added to the memory book as one of the Harpers no longer with us. The crowds are a bit smaller now as those that attend are there to remember and honor the generations that originally met to honor and remember the generations that preceded them. As such, time has become a separating factor from the original nucleus of family that have dedicated the first Sunday in May to each other for almost three quarters of a century.
And yet, despite being separated in age by almost 30 years and being cousins several times removed, this gathering has continued to remind me that family is a tie that binds. We’ve seen each other at our best and our worst. But because we are family we keep returning. It’s what my father did, as did his father before him.
And out of this annual ritual I’ve gotten to know many people that share my blood that I would otherwise barely know. And more than a few, such as Ed, became lifelong friends.
We were family because we were born into it. We were friends by choice. And I’m going to miss him.
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